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TAMPA, Fla. — While juggling the reality of 20 wins over two seasons with yet another bowl-performance dud, two things seem abundantly clear about Iowa football.
The program’s culture is on the right track.
The program’s offense isn’t.
For the fourth straight year with basically the same offensive staff, head coach Kirk Ferentz heads to the evaluation stage of the calendar coming off of a frustrating bowl loss.
Monday’s 30-3 defeat to No. 18 Florida in the Outback Bowl was the latest revealing disappointment that Iowa’s 120th-ranked offense isn’t keeping up with the big boys on the big stage.
Florida’s defense is good, yes. But much of its No. 6 national ranking was built on the strength of how it dominated games when healthy.
On Monday, the Gators were missing their best three linebackers, including a possible first-round NFL Draft pick, and a top safety because of injuries. Yet they still set or tied the following 31-year-old Outback Bowl records: fewest passing first downs allowed (three); fewest passing yards allowed (55); and fewest total yards allowed (226).
This is a Florida defense that had given up 85 points in its past two games.
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It held Iowa to three.
The Hawkeyes now have 20 total points in the first three quarters of the last four bowl games — five per game — when the offense had a chance to take control. (And seven of those came on a 1-yard scoring drive three years ago in the Outback Bowl vs. LSU.)
The defense doesn't get a free pass on this bowl losing streak; it couldn't slow Tennessee or Stanford in the TaxSlayer and Rose bowls. But for the most part, it kept Iowa tight in the last two Outback Bowls, including Monday, and carried the Hawkeyes to the finish line this season. Iowa ended up with an 8-5 record because it won three times in Big Ten Conference play despite scoring just 14 points.
Now’s the time for Ferentz to take a hard look at everything as it pertains to the offense.
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Sure, Florida has an excellent secondary. But Iowa only completed one pass to a wide receiver Monday, to Riley McCarron for 11 yards. That's probably an Outback Bowl record, too.
Ferentz, as you know, is a status-quo guy. And in my interview with him last month, he said he had “no reason to think” Davis wouldn’t return in 2017. He also pointed to injuries to key receivers Matt VandeBerg and George Kittle as really making a big difference in what the offense could do.
But injuries aren't an excuse; Florida's defense certainly overcame them.
I’m not here to call for a specific coaching change. I’ll defer to the head coach who works with these guys on a daily basis, a guy who has learned from the best in Joe Moore and Bill Belichick, a guy who has experienced more coaching victories at a Big Ten school than all but six men.
But the timing is right for Ferentz to heavily scrutinize why, in these past four bowl games, Iowa couldn’t move the football when the games were in the balance — and make some kind of offensive change.
Is it time to move on from or reassign offensive coordinator Greg Davis?
Does Ferentz need to fire a different offensive assistant or two?
What about scheme or system changes in the passing game? (I know, I know ... probably not happening. But there's no ignoring Iowa's 153.1 passing yards per game was its lowest mark in 35 years.)
C.J. Beathard is moving on at quarterback. Like Davis, he’s been here five years.
The Nathan Stanley era at Iowa is probably about to begin, and he wouldn’t have played as a true freshman if he didn’t have enormous potential.
If Ferentz doesn’t act now, the Stanley era is at risk of going down the same offensive tracks as this one did.
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“You know, I evaluate seasons on a lot of things, not just wins and losses,” Ferentz said Monday. “That's certainly part of the criteria, and in the court of popular opinion that's certainly a big, big part of it, and I get that. I understand that.
“But I'm not so sure — just right now — what I would change this month. I think the guys really did a great job with our preparation. I thought our plan was good. I thought our gameplan was good, and there were just some things that we didn't execute.”
Those don’t sound like the words of a man ready to blow up the system.
Nor should he.
After the 45-28 TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Tennessee, which was 42-7 after three quarters, Iowa reassessed its program and saw a weak culture that needed fixing.
The way the Hawkeyes do business changed, and it produced a 20-7 record over two seasons, including a 7-1 mark in trophy games.
There’s plenty of grit behind the scenes. Guys, by all accounts, are doing all the right things inside the Iowa Football Performance Center.
What’s missing is an offense to get excited about.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.